One of the things that my supervising professor stressed during my student teaching placement was that silences were okay. “It means that students are thinking,” he explained, and I agreed. Of course people need time to process information. Not everyone can listen, process, and articulate at the same speed, and so pauses are necessary to level the playing field for everyone in the classroom. Get it, got it, good.
But then, I had my first lesson. Pauses felt like years. When students didn’t immediately rush to answer a question or to give their opinion, I felt my skin start to crawl. The silences were so painful that I tried to fill them, either by answering my own question or chattering while the students were trying to think. Sometimes, my chattering resulted in a frantic attempt to rephrase a question that perhaps didn’t need rephrasing. Sometimes I called on a student to try and get the ball rolling. It didn’t matter what I tried, though. The silences seemed to stretch on for years.
During a debrief on my first lesson that my supervisor observed, he reminded me about the need for pauses. “But I did pause!” I protested. Hadn’t I stood silently after asking questions, trying to give students a chance? If anything, I retorted, I needed to figure out how to make these lulls in education shorter. My supervisor’s smile felt almost patronizing. He told me that he had timed the amount of time I was actually quiet after asking questions, and it tended to be around five seconds.
I was incredulous.
These endless silences had only lasted for five seconds? He must have done his math incorrectly. His watch must have been broken. Before I could voice my concerns, he recommended that next time, I try counting out ten beats in my head without saying anything. “Don’t rephrase the question, call on somebody, or do anything. Just give the class a chance.”
Ten seconds seemed easy enough, but then I tried it. I heard crickets. I mentally planned out the rest of my afternoon. I solved world hunger. Those ten seconds were the longest of my entire life. But here, Einstein’s theory of relativity would seem to come into play. Miraculously, the student’s didn’t seem to think it was too long. In fact, they started raising their own hands without being called on when I gave them time to process the material. My skin still crawled with anxiety whenever the class was silently thinking, but with my new ten beat rule I was able to manage my response to the silence better.
This is something that I think a lot of teachers forget. After all, they only have a limited amount of time each week to teach your child how to be a successful, happy human being. Teachers let the time pressure get to them, and it impacts student learning. Rushing an entire classroom along doesn’t increase critical thinking or engagement, it simply increases everyone’s anxiety in the room and leaves out students who take longer to think. Now, I’m a firm believer in classroom silence. One of my best teaching moments came when I had a ninth grade classroom drag all our desks into a big circle to read Robert Browning’s fantastic dramatic monologue “My Last Duchess”. The conversation we had blew me away, and we were all so engaged that when we took time to think about the answers the silence didn’t feel oppressive.
Sure, sometimes the ten beats rule doesn’t work magic. Just because you give students more time to think doesn’t mean that they’ll come up with the “right” answer. This may be because the teacher has phrased a question poorly, and the pause gives him or her time to think about how to make the question more accessible. It may be because the question was exceptionally difficult. For those tough questions, try scaffolding. Break the question down and start calling on students to help answer smaller pieces of the question until you arrive at a complete answer.
The important thing is not to limit student involvement in the classroom because you’re scared of those silences. It’s easy to stand at the front of a classroom and deliver a lecture where the only sound you hear is your own voice for 40 minutes, because you have complete control over the situation. But that isn’t what teaching is about. Teaching is about the messy process of learning and student engagement. Teaching is about the collaboration that takes place in the classroom among all its members, teacher included, and the learning that results. Maybe not every lesson will go the way you meticulously planned it, but who said that kids should have all the fun learning?